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Burke proposing water park at Veterans Memorial Pool

The Dixon Memorial Pool sits unattended as the city decides what to do about it. Mayor Jim Burke proposed an outside-the-box idea of building a water park at the site.
The Dixon Memorial Pool sits unattended as the city decides what to do about it. Mayor Jim Burke proposed an outside-the-box idea of building a water park at the site.

DIXON – Mayor Jim Burke says it's time to start thinking outside of the box when it comes to restoring Veterans Memorial Pool.

He suggests the public start talking about a waterpark, with the historic pool being the centerpiece of activity.

The state shut down the historic pool more than a dozen years ago because the Dixon Park District couldn't maintain the proper water purity. Estimates to renovate it have ranged from $1.5 million to $3 million.

"Pool Partners," a group of about 40 people, is working to restore the pool Ronald Reagan dedicated in 1950.

Fundraising will be a challenge, organizers have said.

In 2007, voters said no on an advisory ballot designed to gauge the public's interest in raising property taxes to repair and maintain the pool.

This time around, organizers say they prefer a bond referendum or raising the sales tax, but they are seeking more expertise in the area.

To Burke, the facility presents an opportunity to capitalize on preserving history by adding modern amenities constructed outside and around the pool.

"A creative architect could design such a facility," he said on a post to his Facebook page last week. "It could include solar panels to heat the water and reduce the costs.

"I submit that such a water park would be a major Sauk Valley attraction for families and young people and convert a lemon into lemonade."

No engineering studies have been conducted to see what certain amenities would cost, but Burke said Monday that adding to the project will create more excitement.

Colleen Brechon, a lead organizer for Pool Partners and a city commissioner, said there is concern for how the city would continue to pay to maintain the pool – and at this point, all ideas are welcome.

"We've talked about adding water slides to attract more people or adding phases as we move along, to create something much better than just a pool and attract all ages," Brechon said. "More than anything, we're open to many different ideas."

Brechon said communities such as Freeport and Morton have water slides that attract visitors.

In Morton, a city of 16,000 near Peoria, the facility has even made money 2 of the past 3 years, at a time when many swimming facilities operate in the red.

The waterpark has two 25-foot water slides, diving boards, eight swimming lanes and a zero-depth wading pool with a playground for younger visitors.

Operations cost $171,000 last year, but the facility brought in $194,000, said Gary Watson, director of the Morton Park District.

What was the secret?

"Not to overbuild or overstaff," Watson said.

Morton's park district built its state-of-the-art, $4 million facility in 2010 to replace an older public pool. Its voters passed a referendum to issue bonds to pay for it, Watson said.

Also, the amenities put into the facility were suggested by the public, he said. The water park does not attract many out-of-towners.

"The engineering firm (Farnsworth Group of Peoria) listened to what people had to say," Watson said. "A lot of seniors or parents come and exercise (in the lanes), while the younger kids can play in the wading pool. We've built a park that's something for the entire community."

On the other hand, a municipal water park in Douglas, Wyo., loses about $100,000 a year, according to its public works director, Les Newton.

Douglas, a city of about 6,000 at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, hosts the Wyoming State Fair. Its water park, featuring two large slides and a splash area for smaller children, attracts many tourists, but struggles to break even, despite being at capacity 60 percent to 65 percent of the time.

That's OK, though, Newton said.

"Being a small community, we see it as a service," he said. "There isn't much to do here for our youth, so the community sees it as a good trade-off."

Either way, amenities serve as a good way to keep the pool well attended.

"Our old pool lacked draw," Watson said. "There were no amenities. It was a six-lane competitive pool, which is small.

"We just really reached out and found what people wanted."

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